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Vodafone says it had to cut mobile service in Egypt

Carriers react to indirect threats to employees -- and their investments

January 31, 2011 01:25 PM ET

Computerworld - Vodafone, with 28 million cellular customers in Egypt, and France Telecom restored mobile voice services there on Saturday, one day after service stopped because the government demanded the cut-off, Vodafone said on its Web site.

Vodafone's rational for complying with the government was that "there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone..., but to comply with the demands of the authorities." The carrier also noted that it had a priority to protect its employees in Egypt.

"Any actions we take in Egypt will be judged in light of [employees'] continuing well-being," Vodafone said in its statement.

The carrier said that the same cut-off demands were made of other carriers in Egypt. Those carriers have apparently not commented on the restoration of service or offered an explanation for what happened.

Vodafone made it clear to a world watching deadly protests in Egypt that no matter how sophisticated and secure a privately-run communications network may be, it is still vulnerable to government authority. The cut-off of nearly all wireless and Internet connections outraged many free speech advocates.

Analysts and others said that from a technical standpoint, there probably isn't a simple "kill switch" that can stop mobile voice communications, unlike the way core router configurations were apparently changed, a move that ended Internet communications on Friday.

Instead, a government that licenses a mobile authority can threaten violence to individual cell towers or backhaul networks, or to employees working for the carrier. Future license renewals can also be threatened for non-compliance, analysts noted.

"Most providers will follow a government's request if they don't want to lose their investment," said Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner. "I don't think there's a [kill] switch, but the government has the providers shut down.... Unfortunately, autocratic agents will use this [control] to their advantage."

Even the "U.S. [government] would enforce the shutdown of telephony services if it deemed it in the national interest," Redman said. "This has never happened before."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, explained that since carriers are licensed by government authorities "they need to be careful to follow the rules imposed or they may not get a renewal." Essentially, "ruling politicos have a great deal of influence over the carriers in various countries, even though they may not agree with the political whims. They have very little they can do if they don't want to commit suicide."

Gold said that a government can more directly and quickly control a wireless carrier once a signal reaches a backhaul network, where a wired or fiber connection enters a central office or data center. Router configurations in the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) could be altered at a central point to affect communication, preventing a wireless data call's access to the Internet and ending access to Facebook or e-mail.



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